I was about two when I got polio. The doctors advised my parents that since polio affected the nerves they should not send me to school. I was not to be burdened with things like geometry and exams. “She isn’t going to become a lawyer or a professor, is she? She’ll get married, have babies, and lead a comfortable life.” Consequentially, when I was about eight, I was handed over to Mrs. Penherow a middle-aged Anglo-Indian woman, for light private tuition. I remember the solitary tedium of those hours.
Yet the care that was lavished on me at home, and the two surgeries that followed, must have served me well; because a decade later I was able to run up and down steep mountain paths near our summer house in Nathya Gali; a hill-station nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas from which we could glimpse, on clear days, the lofty Nanga Parbat.
In retrospect the creeping encroachment of my isolation, the arbitrary withdrawal of my right to be among other children at school, caused an increasing erosion of my self-regard. The psyche that was left intact by my polio, and had in fact waxed robust for the next few years, was destroyed, unwittingly perhaps, by the doctor.
However, I have concluded from the history of my particular providence that almost every apparent misfortune eventually turns out to be its opposite and instead works out to be in my favor. Contrary to the good doctor’s prediction, I became a professor. I taught at several Ivy League universities in America; I also taught briefly at South Hampton University in England.
When on my tenth birthday Mrs. Penherow gave me Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, some favorable aspect in my horoscope must have been triggered. The novel, combined with my loneliness, propelled me into a feast of reading. Books not only took the place of family, friends, role models, and teachers, but they also unveiled the almost mystic quality that shimmers in beautiful language, and the subtle labyrinth of meaning that words lead one to explore.
By the time I was thirteen the world of books and magazines completely took over my life, which increasingly only existed between the pages of captivating stories that shifted me into the realm of fantasy and imagination. When I ruminate on the books I’ve read, I feel like congratulating myself on the good luck that brought them my way, and there is little doubt in my mind that my earlier polio-stricken reading fashioned me not only into a writer, but also into the almost functional woman that I think I am.
My reading was indiscriminate. Since I did not have access to a library I read whatever came my way, and much of what came my way – besides magazines and comics – were classics: French, Russian, German, English, and American. These books lined six shelves in our sitting room. This was our household library. Although my business-minded family did not read fiction my parents looked upon books as repositories of wisdom. And authors such as Tolstoy, Scott, Forster, Henry James, Melville, Balzac, found their way into our house as birthday gifts for my brother and me.
Having shed Mrs. Penherow by the time I was twelve, I read only what I could assimilate. Shakespeare, and all the major poets in English and other European languages, were beyond the reach of my unaided comprehension. I regret this lack. There are many holes in my education I have yet to fill ….If I ever can….And yet I have perhaps read more than most people.
Tom Sawyer’s dialogue and Huck Finn’s audacity are as much responsible for my incurable addiction to humor as are James Thurber’s short stories, and a book called Mame. Our six-shelf library had the obligatory Dickens, most of which (with the exception of A Tale of Two Cities) I abandoned because of boredom, until I came upon Pickwick Papers. I read it so often that it wore familiar grooves in my brain. The mention of Sam Weller or Mr. Pickwick even now charges circuits that flood my psyche with laughter. A family friend once caught me laughing while I was reading. He gave me my first P. G. Wodehouse: I think it was Lord Elmsworth’s Pig. It was a landmark occasion: tap anyone versed in English from the Indian subcontinent, and you will discover a Wodehouse devotee. Another favorite book, that I must have read again and again was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I still marvel at his insight into the subtleties of a woman’s mind.
I have just a few favorite authors, and a great many favorite books. Some of them I have already named in the context of my youthful reading, but to name them is to neglect other books by other authors I have delighted in and savored equally – and to list them all, especially the Urdu poets I cherish (among them are the romantic and mystic poets), in this short piece is impossible.